For the Love of…Adverbs


As I’ve been working on the revision of Perceval’s Secret, I’ve been trying to remember who advised what to do with adverbs during revision — to circle each and every one and then assess whether each can be replaced with a stronger verb.  The problem with adverbs is that they tend to pile up in writing because they’re easier than stopping to think of a strong verb.  On the other hand, I think that sometimes an adverb is necessary, just as sometimes use of “to be” is necessary.

My mulling about adverbs coincided with my reading of J.K. Rowling’s fifth novel, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.  I think Dolores Umbridge is perhaps the loveliest of all villains.  I could feel myself cringe inside every time she showed up and I thoroughly enjoyed her, shall we say, interesting encounter with a magical creature introduced to her by Hermoine.  That Hermoine!  The last quarter of this novel challenges the reader’s heart in deep ways that the previous four books had not.  But again, I think Rowling’s editor failed her with this book, too.  It was too long by at least a third and each chapter could have been tightened — one of my additional entertainments while reading was to note how I’d tighten each one.

Which brings me back to adverbs.  Rowling crowds her prose with them.  Some beg for clarification.  An example: “‘It is enough that we know,’ said Snape repressively.” (Italics mine)  I’m still trying to discover what Rowling meant here, i.e. what Snape sounded like to sound repressive.  In general, an adverb used in this way could be replaced with action.  For example, replace the attribution with “Snape stepped closer and his eyes bore down on Harry” or with an action toward a substitute object that illustrated repression.

Whether Rowling has favorite adverbs, I don’t know.  I noted that she used very often, and almost always modified the attributive “said” with an adverb instead of noting an action that illustrated the speaker’s emotion or manner of speaking.

Here are some other examples courtesy of Rowling:

You just need some breakfast,” Harry said bracingly.  He could have done something to show that he was trying to give Ron support.

“Only!” said Hermoine snappishly.  In this case, why not “Only!” snapped Hermoine?

Malfoy laughed loudly and sycophantically.  While I could guess at what she wanted here, I have yet to imagine what a sycophantic laugh sounds like.

Can one love adverbs?  Why not?!  In speech, especially, people use adverbs to modify their verbs.  I tend to assess adverbs in dialogue along with every other adverb, but I’m more lenient with them.  They will help give the dialogue the naturalness of speech.  I will leave in an adverb after determining that no verb exists to take its place.  I agree with the rule to use adverbs as often as one would pee in public without having four legs and a tail.

Rowling did two things in the fifth novel that I admired to the skies.  First, she created and sustained Dolores Umbridge.  She chose a name for this worthy adversary that screams what this character is: dolor from the latin for pain, grief; or dolere to feel pain, grieve.  In English, dolor means mental suffering or anguish.  Her last name resembles umbrage which has a meaning: reason for doubt or suspicion.  This character’s name was the first time that I noticed Rowling using the name to reflect or illuminate the character.

The second thing occurs during the big confrontation between Dumbledore and Voldemort.  Throughout all the novels, Rowling has emphasized through her characters the power of a name, i.e. Voldemort, and the advice against using it.  Harry has no fear of this name and uses it often.  Dumbledore also has no fear but he doesn’t call Voldemort by that name or by “Dark Lord.”  During their confrontation, he called him Tom.  With that name, Dumbledore reduces him to his human proportions, to Tom Riddle, the young wizard who had suffered great loss and pain.  Wow.  That was brilliant.  It also showed Dumbledore’s position relative to Voldemort’s, which is the point for the others in the fight with him.

Adverbs, created for the lazy writer, conquered by the determined one…..in the wizarding world of the English language….

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9 responses to “For the Love of…Adverbs

  1. Comes down to the adage: show don’t tell. I agree using too many adverbs is a lazy way to just tell the reader what is happening instead lulling the reader into your world, but it is not easy to do. I think that is why writers resort to just using some clever adverb.

    • You’re right, using adverbs is easy. Finding the strong verb or “showing not telling” is hard. But no one promised writing would be easy! And rather than leaving a reader confused and wondering what you meant, and risking losing the reader, it may be preferable to be clear.

      Strive for clarity!

  2. I never noticed those rephrasing until you mentioned it. Indeed, she did wrote different to give a different feel.

    • Not certain, Jeyna, what you’re referring to in your comment, but I’m happy you left it and hope you’ll come back again soon!

      Since I’m just working my way through the Harry Potter novels for the first time, I’ll hold off reading your blog — looks like you take characters from the novels and spin stories for them. Great idea and great fan fiction! Keep it up….

  3. When writing (prose, not scientific), I will return and during the revision process look at each time I used ‘was’. Can I replace it with an action verb, just to avoid passive writing? And, almost more importantly, can it be condensed to emphasize the importance of that particular sentence. e.g. the snappish Hermione above. Your edit there was spot-on. Write with the least number of words that will still tell the story you want.

    • Yeah, I do the same thing with the verb “to be,” Elizabeth. Action verbs give the writing muscle and movement. Another thing to increase reading interest — vary the length of sentences. But above all, strive for clarity.

  4. It’s all about the balance in utilizing adverbs. Stephen King may harp on their use, but he implements them seamless-ly into his writing. 🙂

    • Every writer uses adverbs. As I mention in the essay, sometimes one is needed. However, the overuse of adverbs can reveal lazy writing. It amazes me how many people believe that writing is easy. Anyone can write. But writing well? That takes a lot of thought and work.

  5. Pingback: Rowling’s Finale: Reading as a Writer | Anatomy of Perceval

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